Guilt Against Death

July 23, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

For all his theological concern, I’ve never been sure what Pynchon makes of Jesus. His concern is primarily with the lost and outcast — all of us, or damn close — and not with the saved and saving.

But one of the most surprising elements of JC’s teaching is his emphasis on love and his deemphasis of guilt. He talks to prostitutes and Samaritans, recruits tax collectors and peasants, asks forgiveness for his punishers. A revolution of personal orientation toward the world: doing good not because you’ve done bad and feel bad about it, but doing good because you love your neighbors and your God.

Of course Christianity has very little to do with Christ.  (Did it ever?)  But I do think Pynchon addresses himself in the long chapter covering pages 130-191 to the lack of love in our contemporary discourse, and the preponderance of guilt.

The startling passage that got me thinking on these lines occurs as we meet a Thanatoid, one of Pynchon’s underground people. Thanatoids are ambiguous beings, creatures of entropy. They “watch a lot of Tube,” living in ghostly communities like Shade Creek, where DL and Takeshi (the “Karmic Adjuster” almost accidentally killed by DL thinking she was killing Brock Vond with the ninjic “Vibrating Palm” — is anything harder to summarize than a Pynchon plot?) meet Ortho Bob Dulang, their first Thanatoid. They “limit themselves… to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death… the most common by far was resentment…”

After a cool exchange in which Takeshi is revealed as a kind of anti-Thanatoid, “trying to go — the opposite way! Back to life!” from his dead-man-walking condition as DL’s victim, we get this doozy, as Ortho Bob comments on the arrangement by which DL is assisting Takeshi for a year and a day to atone for her, you know, killing him slowly with her ninja moves: “My mom would love this. She watches all these shows where, you got love, is always winnin’ out, over death? Adult fantasy kind of stories. So you guys, it’s like guilt against death? Hey — very Thanatoid thing to be doin’, and good luck.”

He’s right: very Thanatoid thing to be doin’. But what does that mean? The Thanatoids are still quite slippery, Pynchon keeping their meaning ambiguous: sometimes they seem to stand for American culture as a whole, a culture glued to the TV and losing the will to do just about anything else; sometimes they seem to be presented as victims of Vietnam or the reactionary elite, made half-ghostly by their inability to overcome their desire for revenge; sometimes they seem simply a way of presenting the human condition: always moving towards death. But it’s the way Ortho Bob frames his argument, his sarcastic, typically Thanatoid comment that there’s no way that guilt (much less love!) could ever overcome death, that’s interesting.

Because the Thanatoids do practically nothing but watch TV, the idea of “love winning out over death” strikes him as an “adult fantasy.” In the arrangement before him, he doesn’t see love as entering into the equation at all: guilt is the emotion he sees, incapable of believing that DL could possibly have any other motivation. But of course, I think the point of the whole exercise from the SKA’s point of view is to move her past guilt, to a desire to operate in the world out of something more than rage and resentment. And it works, maybe — she’s still with Takeshi an undetermined number of years later, in a presumably platonic relationship that seems to bear many of the marks of love.

It’s a very cool, dense passage. It reminds me a helluva lot of DFW, with those extra commas, that broken grammar, the filtering through TV. And also in the way that love is dismissed from the discourse, as something too often exaggerated and mediated and sold to possibly be a real opportunity for salvation. And that does seem to me a Pynchonian commentary on the 1980s, in the time’s utter repudiation of something like “love” — say, concern for fellow citizens and humans, a desire to live peacefully and simply.

One more note here. We saw The Dark Knight last Sunday, and I was struck by what a strange movie it was, so very different from so much else that’s been released in recent years. What made it strange, I think, was its attempt to move past our societal obsession with blame and guilt — if only we can identify and punish the “evildoers,” surely everything will be all right — and its amazingly old-fashioned climax, a fascinating variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory set up by the Joker (and seriously, it’s not just hype: Heath Ledger is really unbelievably good as the Joker). It’s hardly a Batman movie at all: it’s a movie about wanting a man, a city, a country to move past guilt, towards decency, regard for fellow humans, something like love.

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§ 2 Responses to Guilt Against Death

  • Paticus says:

    Well, you are waaaaaaaaaay beyond me with the talk of Pynchon, but i did see The Dark Knight last night, and I will first wholeheartedly agree with you on Ledger, I was a bit cynical going in, I will admit, but he absolutely blew me away. He was phenomenal. And I think you nailed it with the “moving beyond blame and guilt” theme as well. i don’t want to say too much and perhaps reveal plot points to those who have not seen it, but I also think that what inevitably is Batman’s conclusion on that possibility is interesting as well, at least for the short term.
    And WOW, Ledger was really, really good. I loved the movie. It’s really more like a crime epic(I keep thinking of Heat) than a super hero or comic book movie. i think Nolan has really crafted a masterpiece here.
    okay, I’m done blathering. Jeez, why am I so serious ?

  • willhansen2 says:

    I know, right? I can’t even wrap my mind around Ledger’s Joker completely yet. It’s gotten better in the days since I’ve seen it and already seems like I dreamed it.

    Comic-book movies are always a few years (at least) behind the comics themselves, and this Joker was closest to the psycho of Alan Moore’s Killing Joke… but it’s really Ledger’s and Nolan’s own creation. I mean, not to spoil anyone’s fun (there are like 2 people that read this thing anyway), but that throwaway shot where he’s driving with his head out the window? Genius. Pure genius. People at our screening (a matinee) were cheering, laughing, stunned, after the first big Joker scene, the pencil scene. Every scene he’s in is utterly hypnotic. And I thought his delivery, his carriage, his vocal control, were amazing.

    I totally agree with the crime epic aspect, too. I feel like this summer we’ve gotten the yin and yang of super-hero movies: Iron Man, with Downey Jr. having more fun than anyone should realistically have been able to have in the role, and The Dark Knight, in which the super-hero seems to genuinely want someone to take his job away and is kind of background in his own movie.

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